Gliding Over 5,000 Years of Frozen Waters: A History of Ice Skating
Ice skating has been called the oldest human-powered means of transportation. During the winter it is easy for one to imagine our ancient ancestors gliding across frozen lakes in search of food or trying to speed up their trips in the waning daylight. The history of ice skating began about 5,000 years ago and since then there have been many changes both in form and function.
The Earliest Ice Skates
The oldest ice skates have been found scattered across Scandinavia and Russia, with the most ancient artifacts discovered to be about 5,000 years old. Modern scientists believe that the first manufacturers of skates were probably the Finns - who would have needed them the most, due to the fact that in the winter the southern part of Finland has more frozen lakes in 100 sq. km (40 sq. miles) than any other part of the world.
Although ice skating is a popular winter sport today, the purpose of the invention of ice skates was not so much for recreation, as to make travel easier. A study published by Formenti and Minetti showed that crossing the frozen waters in Finland via ice skates would have saved 10% on energy expenditure, when compared to walking.
Detail of ice skaters near Finland on the Swedish map ‘Carta Marina’ (1539). (Public Domain)
With the shorter hours of daylight and high concentration of ice, speed and ease for travel would have been important. As Formenti and Minetti (2007) wrote:
“Ice skates were probably the first human powered locomotion tools to take the maximum advantage from the biomechanical properties of the muscular system: even when travelling at relatively high speeds, the skating movement pattern required muscles to shorten slowly so that they could also develop a considerable amount of force.”
Although this form of transport had already been in use for a very long time, it was not until the 12th century that one can find the earliest written accounts of the practice. William FitzStephen, a secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who wrote:
“When the great fenne or moore (which watereth the walles of the citie on the North side) is frozen, many young men play upon the yce, some striding as wide as they may, doe slide swiftly (...) some tye bones to their feete, and under their heeles, and shoving themselves by a little picked staffe, doe slide as swiftly as birde flyeth in the aire, or an arrow out of a crossbow.”
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How Skates Evolved
Bone was probably the preferred “blade” for the earliest ice skaters. Many of the oldest skates (which may be more accurately called “gliders”) were generally created with the metatarsal or rib bones of deer, elk, caribou or horses. Holes were made at the front and/or back of the bones through which leather thongs or lengths of animal hide were strung to attach the bones to the feet. Scholars believe that these types of skates would have been accompanied by one or two pointed poles to help propel and stop the skaters. Many attempts have been made at recreating the ancient bone skates, and it has shown that the surface of the bones made them very well-suited to gliding across the ice.
Medieval bone ice skates on display at the Museum of London, England. (CC BY SA 3.0)
Thus, the early bone style for ice skates remained the norm (although some also used wood) until metal skates were created in 1250 by the Dutch. That is when a flat wooden block and double-edged iron (later steel) combined to create the basis for the modern ice skate. The combination meant that the newer skates were much more stable and enabled freer movement. With a few more changes, the skaters could just push off with one foot and step with the other to glide quickly across the ice with their hands free.
Wood and metal ice skates displayed at Edmonds Historical Museum, Edmonds, Washington, USA. (CC BY SA 3.0)
Skating for Recreation and Sport
Along with the newfound freedom of modern ice skates came a new use for them as well. While it could have been enjoyable to ice skate with poles, many would argue that it was more tiresome than the method of skating on a metal blade. Therefore, recreational ice skating began to take hold, and by the 15th century ice skating had made its way into art in the form of “Lidwina's Fall on the Ice.”
1498 woodcut entitled “Lidwina's Fall on the Ice” from Johannes Brugman's Vita of Saint Lidwina. (Public Domain) Saint Lidwina is the patron saint of ice skaters.
In some areas, such as the Netherlands, skating was embraced by people of all ages and classes. Eventually the rest of Europe followed suit and by 1742, the world’s first skating club was created in Edinburgh, Scotland. In the earlier days, skating clubs appeared to focus more on figure skating than speed skating. Evidence for this is shown in the first book on figure skating that was created in 1772 and written by Robert Jones.
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The Skating Minister (1790s) by Henry Raeburn. Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Public Domain)
As for speed skating and skating for sport, many scholars argue that these practices began in the Netherlands. The first known skating competition was held there in 1676. Nonetheless, the first official speed skating event did not take place until 1863 in Oslo, Norway.
Skaters during a competition in 1899. (Public Domain)
That is not to say that skating for fun was restricted to Europe and their cold-weather colonies; ice skating was also practiced by the ruling families of China during the Song (960-1279) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties.
Manchu ice skaters perform during a holiday. (Public Domain)
Today, ice skating has changed from its roots as an important form of transportation to a popular recreational activity and sport that is practiced not only on frozen waterways during the winter, but also year-round in indoor ice rinks found all over the world.
Featured Image: Ice skaters from the series Le Supreme Bon Ton, No. 9. Source: Public Domain
By: Alicia McDermott
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